Maine’s greatest strength has always been our unique heritage and strength of character. It’s a truth that shines bright across our state and in the nearly ten percent of Maine people who answered the call to serve our country. Since my time as governor, meeting our solemn commitment to veterans has been among my most important priorities. This month, I was deeply honored to join the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee (SVAC) to continue the work of helping these brave men and women and their families.
A few days after being appointed to the committee, I sat down with a group of Maine veteran leaders to hear about the issues affecting their community.
One of their top concerns is the coordination between the Department of Defense and the Department of Veterans’ Affairs during the transition out of service. Both departments should work harder to provide a “warm handoff” to help veterans integrate back into their communities and find housing, jobs and care. Currently, we’re just not doing enough. We should create something like a buddy system where there is a direct, personal contact between a transitioning service member and a local veteran. Someone should meet these men and women at the airport, say “welcome home” and guide them during this critical period in their lives.
Our country spends billions of dollars recruiting servicemembers into the military and we should invest just as many resources to help our servicemembers rejoin civilian life.
Improving this handoff is also among the most important ways to tackle behavioral and mental healthcare challenges. In 2020, Maine had a veteran suicide rate of nearly 35 per 100,000 while the New England rate was only 24 per 100,000. Maine veterans also face a tragically high overdose rate that resulted in 54 deaths in 2022 alone. It’s heartbreaking, and frankly, unacceptable that our country is failing so many of these men and women.
Fortunately, we’ve already taken action on the committee in the first few days of Congressional activity. In early February, we passed the Improving Servicemember Transition to Reduce Veteran Suicide Act which will create a pilot program to reduce veteran suicides by expanding counseling and support resources during the transition period. And thanks to a bipartisan bill I cosponsored in 2020 designating “9-8-8” as the national suicide prevention and mental health crisis hotline, veterans can now press “1” to access specialized line specifically for them.
Among the most important things I heard during my listening session with Maine veteran leaders was also the need for better oversight and proper implementation of the programs and benefits we currently have.
We’ve made a lot of progress over the last few years to expand support for our veterans. The bipartisan PACT Act, which provides support to veterans exposed to burn pits and other hazards, is a great example. At the end of the day, however, execution is just as important as vision. Passing legislation is just the beginning and follow-through is key—we have to ensure Maine veterans are able to get the support and care they have been promised in a timely, efficient manner.
Effective implementation is among my top priorities this Congress, and it’s why I was excited that we quickly passed the bipartisan VA CAREERS Act I co-sponsored a few weeks after joining the committee. This bill will help address staffing shortages at veteran healthcare facilities, like Togus, by empowering them to hire and retain more staff. Hopefully, we can get the bill to the president’s desk and ensure that when a veteran calls a VA healthcare facility, someone is there to pick up the phone and quickly book them an appointment.
These are but two of many bipartisan bills the committee has already passed this year that exemplify why SVAC is considered one of Congress’ most nonpartisan and productive committees. While the average Senate committee passes a half-dozen bills per Congressional Session (two years,) this past session the Veterans’ Affairs Committee passed 56, the vast majority of which were passed on an overwhelmingly bipartisan basis to support our veterans. It’s a good start, but there’s more work to be done. I will continue listening to veterans’ stories, advocating for their needs and addressing the challenges they face. These everyday Americans answered the call for our country, and now it’s time for us to be there for them.
Angus King is an independent senator from Maine.